Mike’s Favorite Film Scores of 2015
The reason I do this every year is because it forces me to listen to film scores, which is something I don’t do enough. I appreciate film music, but so rarely do I actually sit down and listen to a film score. Usually what I’m doing is complaining about certain scores not getting nominated and wondering why that is. So I use this space as an opportunity to talk about what I liked, and because of that, I have to listen to enough scores to actually have something to say. It works out very nicely.
I’ll put a disclaimer on this: I know nothing about music nor do I claim to. I’m just picking which scores were most aurally appealing to me. I’m sure people who know about music will think much differently. That’s fair. Oh, and I also am only dealing with scores and not soundtracks.
In terms of how the list goes, there’s definitely always a top ten list of scores. I don’t put a cap on it though. I really only want to talk about the scores from the year that actually made me take note and go, “I really liked that.” Sometimes a score is deceiving because it has a really good main theme, but the rest of it isn’t anything other than standard scoring. So there’s a minimum of ten, and it’ll go as high as there are things to talk about.
Here are my favorite film scores of 2015:
I’d like to start by throwing out a partial honorable mention to Jurassic World. I didn’t love the score, but they sure as shit had fun naming those tracks. Some examples: “Bury the Hatchlings,” “The Family That Strays Together,” “As the Jurassic World Turns,” “Owen You Nothing,” “Gyrosphere of Influence,” “Love in the Time of Pterosauria,” “Raptor Your Heart Out,” “Our Rex Is Bigger Than Yours” and “Growl and Make Up.”
Major respect to those puns. If a job existed where I could just do that for everything — taglines, song titles for movie score soundtracks, DVD blurbs — that would be the job I’d be most suited for in this world.
The Honorable Mentions:
20. The Good Dinosaur by Mychael & Jeff Danna — It’s breezy. It’s fun. It’s got some nice melodies to it. It feels like a perfect score for the kind of movie it is. Though very reminiscent of other scores. Like Brave. Very Irish/farming kind of score. Lot of fiddles and such.
19. The Walk by Alan Silvestri — It’s kind of a schizophrenic score. The whimsical “French” portions and the “heist” portions don’t appeal to me as much. But when we get to the beautiful, transcendental portions of the actual walk, that’s when this score really sings.
18. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation by Joe Kraemer — It’s big, it’s brassy, it’s fun. Very overdramatic. The perfect type of action score for this movie. I love a big, fun wall-to- wall action score.
17. Creed by Ludwig Goransson — The melodies are nice, and it works, but mostly because it reminds you of the brilliant work done by Bill Conti in the original Rocky. The “first date” scene and “Rocky’s sick” are straight out of Conti’s original stuff. And the main theme is similar enough to evoke shades of that. Still, this is exactly the score you want it to be, and you can’t help but get excited once that original “Rocky” theme kicks in during the final fight.
16. Spotlight by Howard Shore — It’s quiet, it’s memorable, it fits the mood of the film perfectly. It also sounds like Howard Shore doing Boston. It has shades of that Departed score here and there. The key is that you hear those opening notes and can immediately pinpoint what score it is. That’s good work.
15. The Danish Girl by Alexandre Desplat — Desplat is my favorite working composer. I love his stuff so much. After his win this year, he had a bit of a quiet year for 2015. His two big scores were this and Suffragette. This one is very classy and lovely, and I liked it quite a bit. But it didn’t resonate with me as much as he usually does. I guess the Academy felt the same way, because this is the first time in five years he hasn’t been nominated. Still, this is quite a good score and is a respectable entry into his filmography.
14. Spectre by Thomas Newman — I’m a huge fan of Thomas Newman’s two Bond scores. Skyfall is my choice between the two, but this one is good too. Plus, there’s no way I won’t choose a Bond score as one of my favorites if given the chance. It sounds like the Skyfall score, but it has its flourishes to make it stand out. I also like what his two scores have done to the franchise, which is open it up to new composers, after they’ve essentially only had two for the duration. Which isn’t entirely true. But typically when you think Bond, you think John Barry and David Arnold. But they did have George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti, Michael Kame and Eric Serra do scores for them. So hopefully this breaks them from their pattern and allows them to go in interesting and cool directions moving forward (since I doubt Newman comes back after Mendes leaves).
13. Ex Machina by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury — It’s synth-y, it’s moody, it’s atmospheric, it sets a good space for the film. I really enjoyed this quite a bit and liked it quite a bit more than I thought I would. It’s the kind of score that goes really well in headphones when you’re on a train or something. It’s so simple, too. Which allows it to build and scare the shit out of you and make everything tense at the drop of a hat. And it never cheats. It never does that sudden staccato horror movie “jump scare” thing. This is a slow build. Listen to “Skin,” and how it builds over the final minute. Just hearing it, I knew exactly what part of the film that was from. “Bunsen Burner” is terrific, too.
12. Beasts of No Nation, by Dan Romer — I like that it’s more of a personal score and isn’t action heavy, and doesn’t have that goddamned “ethnic” sound to it. Every time someone sets a movie in Africa, you get a score that sounds like it’s supposed to be from Africa. You know what I’m talking about. This score doesn’t do that at all. This score uses keyboards and strings really well. It gives the whole thing a personal feel. This could be the score to an indie drama most of the way and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I really appreciated that. Listen to the track “Guns Up.” That’s not what I’d expect to hear from a track with that name. Major props to Dan Romer, whose Beasts of the Southern Wild score has emerged as one of the great scores of the past five years that I can still go back and listen to.
11. Brooklyn by Michael Brook — this narrowly missed my top ten. It’s so wonderful. It’s got that old school, classical film score sound to it. The kind of score you’d hear out of a major Oscar film from the 90s. This could be from Legends of the Fall. I mean, sure, it’s got that Irish tone on it, but it’s not that dissimilar from something you’d have heard from one of those scores. The reason this missed my top ten was because there were a bunch of tracks that I didn’t love, that felt like they were filler tracks. The rest of them felt like I could actually listen to the scores as a whole. But when this score is on, it’s on.
My Top Ten Film Scores of 2015
10. Cinderella by Patrick Doyle
This is exactly the kind of score you want for a movie like this. It’s big, it’s Disney-esque, it’s classy, and most importantly, it reminds you of every kids movie you grew up watching. This hits all the right notes (you know you love my film score puns), and is the kind of score that really could have been put on silent films and worked. It’s absolutely lovely, and is actually a score I could put on freely and listen to without reservation. You can actually put this on blind for someone and they’d not only say it was a good score, but they’d not be able to pinpoint it directly as Cinderella. Put on the track “The Stag.” If I told you that was from Last of the Mohicans, or Hook (well… maybe not a John Williams), or even fucking Back to the Future, you could accept that as probably being true. Well, the first half. The last half, with the violin, makes it sounds like Legends of the Fall, or one of those outdoorsy 90s adventure movies. Tombstone or something like that.
Either way, this is a lovely score and well deserves a top ten spot.
9. Mad Max: Fury Road by Junkie XL
This is a perfect score for the type of movie it is. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s emotional. It gets the blood going and never lets up. You don’t realize until you listen to the score on its own how reliant on the music this film is. The rhythmic beating of the drums and the electric guitar breaking in, signaling the war party — it’s a thing of beauty. I mean, sure, I won’t be listening to this on the regular, as I’m folding my laundry, but I can safely say that this was one of my favorite scores of the year. It’s perfectly done, and serves its movie really well. The beautiful thing about this score is how it transitions from the rumbling of the war party to big and loud for the action to beautiful and orchestral for the emotional parts, like “Many Mothers,” when Furiosa realizes everything she’s tried to get back to is no more. It’s wonderful. That’s the reason this ranks #9, because the emotional moments are done so well. So many action scores nowadays are all about a theme and then they’re underscoring the action and not actually being film scores. This is a score that knows what a film score is supposed to do. This comes from the John Williams school of “make the score so loud that it actually drives the emotion of the scene higher,” rather than when they try to do it subtly, which I hate.
8. Carol by Carter Burwell
I feel like this is the one score on this entire list where, when I think about its film, I immediately associate it to its score. I’m not talking about franchises with themes and stuff, I mean, when I think about the movie, I hear the score playing over it. This is the only one that happens with for me. (Well… one other. That’s coming up soon.) It’s just a really memorable score (and quite frankly, I think it might win). There’s a little bit of Fargo in this score, which is kinda nice.
This is one of those melodrama scores that perfectly brings in all the emotionality and feeling that the characters do not. I think that’s why I hear the score first, because this is where all the emotion of the film is. The one drawback to it is that a lot of it feels like it’s a bit overly reliant on that theme (which admittedly is great) repeating over and over.
The other think I’d like to add here — Carter Burwell has composed some great scores. Every Coen brothers movie, to start with. Specifically Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There and True Grit. Not once has he been nominated for an Oscar. It’s funny — looking at his films, he’s composed the scores to a lot of great movies. And yet, for most of them, I’m not even cognizant that there is a score for a lot of them. Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Adaptation, In Bruges, Where the Wild Things Are, Seven Psychopaths — you don’t think of the film scores of those movies. Which is fascinating. He’s one of those composers who is actually like what studios wanted a director to be in the 30s — an invisible hand.
Carter Burwell, the Adam Smith of composers.
7. It Follows by Disasterpeace
This score is wonderful. This is the first year I find myself really going in for this type of score. This is the third one. I’m counting Mad Max, even though that does have a lot of traditional score elements to it. But by and large, this, Mad Max and Ex Machina are a different type of film score where
This score just brings you right into the mood of the film immediately. Just listen to the opening track. Within two and a half minutes, you’re within the realm of terror and paranoia and completely on edge. This score also goes from foreboding to “FUCK ME” at the drop of a hat. It sounds like when you’re a kid and have that electric keyboard and just smash all the keys at once and hold them down. But from the parents’ perspective mixed with your perspective. Because as a kid, you knew it was grating but wanted to do it anyway, and the parents were like “FUCKING STOP THAT.” So this is in between, where it’s loud and it’s like the “fuck you turn it off” alarm went off in your head, but it’s also kind of okay.
Plus the score gets wonderfully horror-synthy after a while. I guess that’s called “John Carpentry.” That’s really why this is here. It sounds exactly like a John Carpenter score at times, and that dude was a better composer than he was director (is, I guess). His scores are amazing. Halloween works because of the score. (And a lot of other reasons that we don’t get into right now because it lessens my argument.)
I’m a little upset to say that my seventh favorite score of the year is something I could have heard while stumbling drunk into a college party at a hipster frat, but what can you do? This is a really effective score that helps its movie, scares the shit out of you, and is also pleasant to listen to in its down moments. If you took this score and set that shit to a video game, but like a really terrifying one where fucked up things happened, it would be one of the best things you play, because it really gets you into the mood of it all.
I’ve found myself to be a bit of a snob when it comes to film scores, preferring the traditional sounding ones. But honestly, this is better than almost anything I heard this year.
6. Sicario by Johann Johannsson
I may have spoke too soon when I said Carol immediately made me think of its score. Because this is another movie that immediately reminds you of the music in it. Of all the film music you heard this year, how much of it is more memorable than that ominous descent motif with the strings and horns? That sets the tone perfectly for this movie. There are very few more perfectly crafted film scores than this one for 2015, and I’m actually really happy that Johannsson got nominated for it, because so often would a score like that go unnoticed and unrecognized, but it’s actually quite impressive. I thought he should have been nominated for Prisoners, and then he did get nominated for Theory of Everything, which is more classic in structure. But this score is something else entirely. Here’s a film that’s part drama, part action movie. And the score really just elevates the whole thing. The wrong director and composer on this movie, and you get generic action. Here, it’s layered in metaphor, motifs, themes. There were craftsmen on this movie, same as there were on Prisoners. and every time those strings kick in, you feel yourself get tense, because you know some shit is about to go down. It’s like Jaws. The fucking drug sharks are coming. I won’t be listening to this score on its own a ton, but that shouldn’t alter its ranking for me. This is one of the best and most memorable scores of the year.
5. Crimson Peak by Fernando Velazquez
This was a score (and film) that when I saw it, I said, “This should be nominated for Oscars.” Costumes, sets, music, cinematography. It should have been nominated for all of it. This movie is gorgeous. This score is one of the best and most memorable that I heard all year. And no one remembers it.
Fernando Velazquez came on my radar after doing the score for The Impossible, which I still maintain is one of the most underrated movies of the past five years. He hasn’t done a whole lot since that people would have seen. But this was a return for him in a big way. (Cannot wait for his A Monster Calls score next year.)
This score is exactly what the Carol score is, and more. It’s big and romantic and melodramatic, and it perfectly overscores the film. That’s what you want for a story like this. You want the music to soar with emotion. Sure, it has horror type elements that don’t appeal to me as much, but the actual score work here for the majority of the scenes is quite beautiful. It reminds me of those classical Hollywood scores, which is exactly what the movie is trying to evoke. Those gothic romances of the 40s. It’s absolutely lovely, and it upsets me to no end that this movie didn’t get more respect all around.
4. The Hateful Eight by Ennio Morricone
I am grateful for any new piece of music Ennio Morricone wishes to give us. That said, this is also a very good score. Quentin finally allowed music to be added to his film that wasn’t chosen by him, and I think we’d all agree that one of the things this movie gets very right is that music. I’m hoping Quentin uses this to get composers for himself in the future, but I kinda doubt that’ll happen.
Anyway, this score is wonderfully done. It has the Ennio Morricone western hallmarks and also sounds a lot like his work on The Thing, evoking that slow building sense of paranoia. And then it has his usual flourishes of strings coming in all over the place. It sounds a bit like parts of The Untouchables, too. It’s unmistakably Morricone. It sets the tone really well for the film and reminds you of all the amazing work this man has done in his career. I’m kind of hoping he wins an Oscar just for that.
3. Steve Jobs by Daniel Pemberton
Another non-traditional score. Look at me. Branching out this year. I love what this score is. Which, to an extent, is based on the type of movie this is. It’s three different films, set in three different time periods. So each section of the score highlights that. Just like the film does. Boyle uses different film stocks in each of the different sections, and this score uses different types of instruments to convey time, place and mood. The first section is very mechanical, much like Steve and the way he thinks. Everything is logical and has a solution. It also sounds like the kind of music made by a computer in the 80s, if that makes sense. Big fan of when he introduces the strings (“Jack It Up”). Then there’s Part II, which is much more operatic in structure, almost Shakespearean, which is exactly what that part is. Steve’s got the plan to make himself essential to Apple so they have to bring him back, there’s the big argument with Scully. And the music is also getting more progressive as we move forward. More layered, more complex. Like the computers. Really love “The Skylab Plan.” A lot. And then in the final section, it gets more modern. The snaps come in, it feels much more like a 90s computer sound. A lot of beats there. It feels exactly like the time period its trying to depict. And the best part is that elements of all three segments are in the score throughout. It’s a really wonderful and cohesive piece of work. And very much not something I’d usually go for. But I loved it. I really love this score.
2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens by John Williams
It’s Star Wars. It’s John Williams doing Star Wars. You’re insane if this doesn’t strike a chord with you. I normally wouldn’t want to put something like this so high, but this year, there really weren’t a whole lot of scores that spoke to me. Plus, come on. This should excite you. That’s its job. Even the scores to the prequels were great. Do you really think The Phantom Menace deserved Duel of Fates? I am grateful for any opportunity John Williams has to go back to the blockbuster well. He’s been doing wonderfully quiet scores the past few years, but this score is special because of all the good memories it brings back. I’m actually also kind of okay that he’s not doing Rogue One, because I want his Star Wars contributions to be deliberate and not overdone. Plus, Desplat is doing it, and I’m excited as shit to hear him tackle that.
I honestly have nothing to say here. John Williams. Star Wars. That’s all the justification I need.
1. Inside Out by Michael Giacchino
This score is magical. It’s impossible not to smile the minute you hear the opening notes. Michael Giacchino is not a favorite composer of mine. I like that he’s jazz-oriented, for the most part, but his action scores all sound the same to me. Very generic. (Though props to Speed Racer.) I only really like him when he goes into the Pixar realm. Whenever he’s scoring Pixar, magic happens. The Incredibles was the film that made him famous, and that’s a great score. Ratatouille is a great score. Up — my god, it’s wonderful. Nobody remembers the music from Cars 2 because that movie sucks, but this — this score is so beautiful. This score just feels like childhood. The theme of this year (pun about to be ridiculously intended) is that composers take a central theme and just hammer that shit home throughout the rest of the work. This one does that, but it also has a bunch of other stuff going on. That typical Pixar sound. It also sounds like (and people who grew up with the original games will know exactly what I mean) the music from The Sims. (Right though)? This movie runs the complete emotional gamut. By the time you get to “Tears of Joy” and “Rainbow Flyer,” it just ruins you. I like to have an emotional response to a film score, and no film score cuts right through to my emotions this year like this one does. Last year, we really only had the top two that made me feel something. This year, this was the only score I found myself thinking of on its own.
Also, for those keeping score (pun ridiculously intended), three of my top five weren’t nominated. Though four of the five nominees were in my top ten. So there’s that. That’s typically how it works every year. This is the fifth year I’ve done this, and every time, I go 4/5. And funnily enough, this is the second time Thomas Newman was the fifth nominee, despite not making my list of favorites. (The other was 2013, with Saving Mr. Banks. Though I will also note that he was #1 for me with Skyfall in 2012.)
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Tomorrow I start going over my favorite performances of the year.